Belmopan, Belize. Fri. Sept. 3, 2021– Among a number of Bills introduced at Friday’s special sitting of the House of Representatives was the Summary Jurisdiction Offenses Act. House members introduced an amendment to the bill that is aimed at preventing the dissemination of misinformation by increasing the severity of the penalties meted out to those guilty of the offense. Particularly since the onset of COVID-19, there has been a flood of misinformation which has been spread across various platforms — causing a phenomenon known as an “infodemic”.
In light of the extensive posting of information via social media daily with little to no citation of credible sources, the GOB is now making efforts to regulate information-sharing, since the dissemination of falsehoods has been a hindrance to progress, especially where vaccination efforts are concerned. The Hon. Francis Fonseca outlined at the House meeting the purpose of the amendment:
“In February of 2020 the World Health Organization described the rapid growth of Covid-19-related misinformation as an infodemic. And infodemic is defined as an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources or reliable guidance when they need it. The flood of information related to the Covid-19 pandemic presents a challenge in itself. In addition to accurate information, there is disinformation and misinformation about possible cures or remedies for the Covid-19 virus, the origin of the disease, the details of cases, the efficacy of government policies and much more. Often, internet users share misleading or inaccurate information inadvertently out of concern for their loved ones. In some cases, bad actors do so to exploit societal fears and sew discord to interfere with responses to the ongoing health crisis or to profit from the crisis,” he explained.
“Misinformation and disinformation represent a serious challenge in addressing a viral epidemic or other public health crisis. Governments are right to take the threat of misinformation seriously. They should develop policies to effectively halt the spread of myths and to counter this deliberate misinformation campaign. However, despite the threat posed by misinformation and disinformation, any restrictions on the dissemination of supposedly false information must of course comply with the requirements of legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality, as any such restrictions will affect the right to freedom of expression…So, instead of prescribing a specific provision to address spreading of false news in relation Covid-19, the provision under the Summary Jurisdiction Offences Act is best suited to combat the threat of misinformation and disinformation. The offence under section 319 is not committed unless certain elements are satisfied and as such it is not an offence that can be used arbitrarily to sensor individuals or deprive them of their right to freedom of expression unless such expression creates a public detriment, and that individual did so intentionally. Given the serious implications that can result from the spread of false information, the penalty in relation to this offence is a fine of $3,000 or imprisonment for a term of 6 months,” he further said.
Previously, the penalty was only $300 or a possible six months of imprisonment. These restrictions could lead to future repercussions for those engaged in the anti-vax movement, such as the Belize Rights and Justice Movement (BRJM), which has launched a campaign to convince the public that the vaccine is a hoax and that PCR tests are not adequate in tracking the virus, if it even exists. The group has received numerous public condemnations from the PM, who says they are “endangering the lives of people who are already scared” and the Minister of Health, who has said that they are “fear mongering and they are doing a disservice to the Belizean public.” The Belize Medical and Dental Association also asserted in a public statement that the BRJM is making their jobs more difficult by discouraging members of the public from getting vaccinated.
It is to be noted that a number of guidelines will be used to determine whether the sharing of certain information can be classified as an offense in order to preserve people’s right to freedom of expression.